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Published: February 17th 2019
Oh India! As I sit here in the chill out zone of Red Lollipop Hostel, at the time of writing the only hostel in Chennai, vainly trying to bring my blogging up to date, I think back over the last 20 hours and the things I’ve seen and experienced. India certainly seems to be the country that was painted to me by fellow travellers over the years – beautiful and bewildering, awesome and awful, delicious and devious!
It all started last night, arriving late on the AirAsia flight from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. I thought I was in luck when I wound up making friends with a French guy and Dutch guy at arrivals to share a taxi with to the centre of town. After more than a fair share of faffing around changing money & broken ATMs, we got a taxi to each of our respective places for 200 Rupees (3 Euros) each. Admittedly, my first impression of the city wasn’t great. Dirty, smelly, disorganised, I was fearing the worst! No more than 5 minutes into the trip we saw an unconscious (possibly dead) guy being rather unceremoniously carried off a
main highway heading towards the city. It would turn out to be that kind of trip. We spent about the next hour and a half driving around the city arriving first at the Dutch guy’s place. It was a shithole and after one glance out of the taxicab window he refused to get out, opting instead to stay at the place the French guy had booked. There, we arrived to what was essentially a swimming pool of sewerage and waste due to the recent monsoon weather. The guys made the taxi draw up as close to the hostel door as possible to avoid wading through the shit. Even then it still required and fairly entertaining game of “the floor in lava” to get into the place. Having not arrived at my destination I, naturally, stayed put in the taxi. “Why aren’t you getting out?” the driver asked. “Erm, cos I’m not at my hostel!” I replied, trying to hide my ever-growing frustration and tiredness. He had no idea of where anyplace was. As I had already told him at the airport, I said that my place was close to Mandaveli Bus Depot – surely an obvious enough landmark
for any self-respecting taxi driver? “Oh, very far Sir, you pay extra” he responded. “No, I told you where I was going at the start” I said. This went back and forth for a good ten minutes or so until I finally decided it just wasn’t worth the hassle and conceded. “Fine” I said, and agreed to pay 300 Rupees more, finally getting to my hostel around midnight not before at least a couple more wrong turns along the way. As I got out, I handed him the 900 Rupees and as if to add insult to injury, he asked for another 50 on account of the lateness. I resisted the urge to punch him in the face and just walked inside my hostel.
To say the next day was an improvement would be a massive understatement! It started with some casual firecracker exploding on the street in honour of the Diwali Festival – the Hindu festival of light. It’s fair to say I lucked out a bit – I had no idea my stay in Chennai would coincide so perfectly with the festival! After an excellent (and free) breakfast, I took a short stroll
with some hostel folk to Kapaleeshwarar Temple and the nearby bustling market streets. This was followed by a tuk-tuk ride to the Children’s Park – a somewhat strange and sorry excuse for a zoo. After a top-notch lunch, my first ever Indian curry in India! – it was siesta time back at the hostel.
I really had no idea today was Diwali and I also had no idea the hostel would have a kickass roof terrace too. The fact that it was and that it did led to one of my most favourite travel experiences to date. Around 7pm a few of us headed to the roof to witness a truly amazing 360º firework show. As I stood there, higher than any of the buildings around us blown away by the bright lights and booming noises each vying for my attention, I felt extremely fortunate to have been able to watch something so impressive from such a great vantage point. It was special. It was a perfect travel moment. Tomorrow I’ll sleep in and then head to the train station to grab a ticket for my next destination – Bangalore.
Or at least I
thought I would there, until someone came along and told me about Hampi, the número uno rated experience in India according to the good ‘ol Lonely Planet. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that it was well worth seeing, although nothing was easy about getting there. First off was an 8-hour train journey over to Guntakal, north of Bangalore. Buying the ticket alone required my passport, photocopy of my passport, a filled-out form, trips to two different counters and just a smidge of patience for good measure. The night I left Chennai (12 Nov) it was raining, as in torrential end-of-the-world monsoon raining and despite sprinting the 200 metres to Mandaveli Bus Depot I still arrived drenched head to toe. This was to be the start of my trip. I took a bus to the central train station and boarded my train to Guntakal where I promptly removed my soaking wet shoes and hung my socks up to dry under the ceiling fans. I was on the top bed of a sleeper train which suits me fine as my feet can overhang while people pass by freely below. The only downside, as I painfully found out,
is that there’s not a lot of room between bed and ceiling and, as I lay back after having organised my things at the end of the bed, I cracked my head against a ceiling light so hard I think my expletives were heard from the opposite end of the train.
The train finally pulled up in Guntakal around 09:00 the next day. I zombie-walked off the train wearing my still-damp clothes and sporting a golf-sized bump on the back of the head. I took a tuk-tuk to the nearby bus station where I thought I’d be able to pick up another to Hospete – the town everyone passes through to get to Hampi. But of course, that would be too convenient! Instead, I had to take a bus to Bellary, walk to another bus station that I never would have found were it not for a kind local showing me the way, take another bus to Hospete and then another to Hampi. So the whole trip went something like: mad dash in monsoon rain, bus to train station, overnight train, tuk-tuk, bus, walk, bus and bus. The only positive I could cling to was
that, in order, each thing cost: 5 rupees, 265 rupees, 20 rupees, 52 rupees, 60 rupees and 13 rupees totalling 415 rupees – 6 Euros!! I got to Hampi at around 2pm shattered and in desperate need of a hug and hot shower! Hampi:
And I wasn't finished yet! Normally I would rock up to my pre-booked accommodation but on this occasion I was old-schooling it and after a short vetting process I ended up at the excellent Sudha Guest House on the eastern border of town. 500 rupees (7 Euros) got me a private en-suite with a terrace view of the Tungabhadra river upstairs. Truth be told, the town of Hampi is nothing to write home about. It's one of those places that springs up off the back of tourism, complete with decent-quality accommodation and all the hippy-loving, foreigner-friendly, wi-fi providing restaurants you can shake an over-priced i-pad at!
I had just two full days in Hampi but it was enough. The first day I stayed on foot, visiting the nearby temples and on the second I rented a bicycle to take in the ones further away. Fortunately
Hampi is relatively flat, but it certainly wasn't easy going. The bike was heavy and clunky and it was tough just trying to keep the chain from falling off. The temples were amazing, especially the Vitthala Temple with its iconic stone chariot and musical pillars. After an exercise-filled day I dropped the bike off with just enough time for a quick Mango Tree dinner before hoping in t he 7pm (800 Rupees) night bus to Goa... Goa:
I learned one indisputable thing on the bus journey across from Hampi... never ever ever travel by bus in India!! Due to the bumps and pot holes in the roads, for the first 20 minutes I struggled to even keep myself in bed. I eventually got the hang of it but the chances of sleeping were slim.
We arrived to Panjim station around 6am the next day. I paid 200 Rupees to a moto-taxi to take me to Calangute Beach (15km north) and he dropped me off at Zostel where I'd booked 4 nights, staying 5 in the end, leaving on Saturday 21st. It was one of the most social hostels of my trip
- impossible not to meet people to hang out with. It was a stark change following the tranquillity of Hampi. The Monday I arrived I had a big fat siesta to get over my ever-so-bumpy bus ride and then chilled the night away in the hostel common area. The next day the fun started! I rented a scooter for 3 days paying 900 Rupees (13 Euros). It belonged to a mate of one of the hostel owners who brought it round within 5 minutes of getting the call. The conversation went something like: "I'd like to rent a scooter please". "Do you have a driver's license?". "Yes". "Do you have 900 Rupees?". "Yes". "Here's your scooter". I wasn't even sure I needed a scooter for 3 days but for the money it was a no-brainer. It gave me total freedom to explore wherever and whenever I wanted, much better than using moto-taxis and tuk-tuks. There was just one little snag - having a scooter in India means you have to drive - in India!
I teamed up with some great folk from the hostel (2 Indians, 1 American girl, 2 Germans and 1 Irish guy) and together
we headed out on our respective scooters / motorbikes heading first to Fort Aguada, just north of Panjim and then south past Panjim and towards the southern beaches of Goa. I'm not sure if it was our original intention but we somehow ended up all the way down on Palolem beach, one of the best beaches in Goa, for sunset. The roads to get there were windy and the scenery picturesque - it was perhaps the most fun I've ever had on a scooter. We parked up, admired the sunset, swam in the sea, strolled on the beach and had dinner and beers with our feet in the sand. It was a perfect moment that reaffirmed my decision to go travelling in the first place!
If the drive to get there was at times a tad scary the drive back in the dark was positively terrifying! We'd come a good 80km from our hostel and we had the same to get back to enjoy some much-needed beers. The lack of street lights didn't help and you're constantly blinded by the high beams of the cars coming in the opposite direction. Signs are non-existent; we only got by
thanks to the GPS on one guy's phone. And driving is erratic, VERY erratic! When I took my driving test I learned that it's not sensible to overtake if there's something coming in the other direction. People in Goa clearly didn't get that memo. It's not so much "mirror, signal, manoeuvre" and more "manoeuvre". We were about half an hour from our hostel when a car coming the other way pulled out right in front of me trying to overtake the car in front of him. All I could do to avoid a head-on collision was to swerve off the road, falling sideways as I did. It was a close call and luckily for me the side of the road just rolled off so there was nothing to hit or fall into. Fortunately, I ended up with no more than a grazed knee and few scratches on the side of the scooter. The driver of the car never stopped but about half a dozen others did. After a while, the crowd dispersed, I dusted myself off and got back on the saddle for the rest of the journey (albeit slightly more gingerly).
Thankfully, the next days were
calmer. We spent time visiting Old Goa with its Portuguese colonial churches, Panjim including a great wee visit to the folk at the Public Astronomical Observatory for a bit of stargazing, and with my last day with the bike a bit of beach hopping to the north starting at Vagator and ending at Arambol for sunset and another beach-side dinner. On Friday morning I handed the scooter back over and then did as little as possible until I left on Saturday evening. I did squeeze in a bit of Goan nightlife over on nearby Baga Beach but with it still not being the season, most places were still pretty dull!
I booked an overnight bus (1750 Rupees) on Cleartrip
leaving at 20:45 from a place not too far from the hostel. There was some confusion with the taxi and I only just made it to where I needed to be after a mad dash and a massive helping hand from one of the hostel's staff. Literally a minute later and it was another night in Goa - which wouldn't really have been a bad thing! I left with a slightly heavy heart having had a great time
and having met some genuinely sound people. Off to Mumbai I went... Mumbai:
A 12-hour bus journey becomes a 16-hour bus journey so easily in India. I'd actually managed to fall asleep on this occasion, but around six in the morning I was rudely awaken. The sun was just coming up when the bus ground to a halt on a motorway leading into Mumbai. A lorry had overturned and the backup went on for miles
. Hilariously, a coach behind us tried to pull off an ambitious three-point turn only to back into the central canal separating the north and southbound lanes. Basically it was stuck and even when we finally got going again, some 4 hours later, there were still people trying to jimmy it out of the rut! I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for them!
My luck changed, however, when some friendly folk advised me to jump off at the Sion stop as opposed to the final stop as I'd previously planned, and then I managed to share a taxi with a local fellow to Fort in the south of Mumbai. It was 200 Rupees between the
two of us and I was dropped off at my hostel - Travellers' Inn, where I would stay for a fairly swift (and perhaps slightly short) 3 days leaving on Wednesday 25th. It was a simple little hostel and for 10 Euros a night it was actually one of the more expensive places I stayed in in India, but it was perfectly
located and I met some nice folk there.
I stayed local for the first day, only venturing as far as the Town Hal and the impressive VT station (first of a couple Slumdog Millionaire spots). The next couple of days, however, were notably more productive and I got to know a city far removed from the images I'd had of it previously. Mumbai is India's second most populated city but to me it didn't actually seem that crowded or chaotic. The streets were clean and even the traffic, despite the ever-present horn honking, seemed to be relatively orderly. Relatively!! The colonial architecture is beautiful. I spent the second day admiring the High Court, The Fountain of Flora, The Big Ben rip-off Clock Tower, The University and the impressive Gateway to India - the famous archway
through which the last remaining British troops were sent packing! I'd always wanted to see a Bollywood movie in India so that night I went down to Regal cinema (3 Euros) and had the pleasure of watching... Spectre. Can't say no to Bond! The intermission is funny, but the national anthem at the start was hilarious!
With the last day, it was back to Slumdog spotting with a tour of the Dharavi slum, where part of the movie was shot and where a staggering 60%, yes 60%, of Mumbai's population live! I'm always a bit weary and suspicious of these kind of tours and I had my reservations about this one but I was assured that half of my 650 Rupee ticket goes to good causes and the guide himself was from the actual slum. That was good enough for me so at 10am I left with King and Damien from the hostel, took a train from VT Station arriving to the slum shortly afterwards. In the end I can say it was both a positive and negative experience. It was certainly interesting seeing all of the different businesses squeezed into any available space. We passed pottery,
leather and recycling shops although as always it was a tad disappointing being herded into a bags & jackets shop for the usual hard sell rather than exploring the nearby alleyways.
What happened next will surely live long in the memory. While walking back to the station sans guide, we passed what was clearly a wedding very much in full swing. Being curious foreigners we tentatively stuck our heads in for a closer look and were promptly "adopted" by the happy family. Rita, the mother of the groom, grabbed us and made sure we had our pictures taken with the smiling couple. We suddenly became the centre of attention in a room of at least 70 people. After a handful of snaps and filled with a celebrity-esque feeling, Rita took us downstairs to where the guests had eaten, gave us each a tray and told us to help ourselves to whatever we fancied - buffet style! It was delicious and free, which makes it even more delicious! We had our fill while chatting away to Rita and other family members who were more than happy to share their family stories with us.
I eventually took the train south and got off at Grant Road station for a worthwhile visit of Ghandi's house/museum followed by a taxi ride up to Malabar Hill for the Hanging Gardens, Nehru Park and a great view of Mumbai's skyline. We strolled along Marine Drive before another wee taxi ride for beers at the famous Leopold's Café, the place attacked by terrorists with gunfire and grenades back in 2008. The visible bullet holes in the walls serve as a poignant reminder. The day, however, was capped of on a positive note with an awesome burger (and more beers) at Colaba Social. All in all it was another great day and fortunately for me they just kept coming. The following morning a 650 Rupee taxi ride took me to the airport for my 12:25 Indigo flight. Destination... Udaipur. Udaipur:
What a beautiful surprise Udaipur turned out to be. I landed 20km east of town hoping as always to snag a fellow tourist or two to share a taxi/tuk-tuk. It wasn't to this time however, and I downright refused to pay the 600 or so Rupees being quoted at the pre-paid taxi stand. The
Tourist Office was, predictably, closed but a security guard told me I could take a bus from just outside the airport so off I went headed for the main road. I was assured by a local that the bus would stop, so I waited, then waited some more and then a little bit more after that until the same local guy reappeared and called me over to what was basically a slightly larger than normal tuk-tuk. It took me to Udaipur for just 20 Rupees. Job's a good'n!
In the end, it actually only went as far as where the old town starts so I had to get a tuk-tuk for 70 Rupees to take me to Jagdish Temple where it was a short walk to my home for the next 4 days - Bunkyard Hostel. The guy at reception (Srujan) was super-friendly and gave me the grand tour of the hostel, going up one floor at a time. As we went higher, the view just kept getting better and better until finally, from the rooftop terrace, it was easy to see the full beauty of Udaipur with the City Palace, Lake Pichola and the famous Octopussy
Taj Lake Palace all in plain sight. I wasn't expecting such a view and the hostel was surely one of the best places in the city to appreciate it.
The few days I spent in Udaipur were fairly relaxing but then Udaipur is a fairly relaxing place to be. And as if to prove that the world is indeed a small place, I randomly bumped into an English girl at the hostel who I'd previously worked with seven years prior in a tiny little summer camp just outside of Madrid. We teamed up with one or two others to explore the city, getting lost in its labyrinth streets before ending up on another roof terrace on the eastern side of the City Palace where we had the pleasure to witness a very fancy wedding light show. After another city stroll and a completely failed attempt at renting a scooter, I decided to go solo around the Palace. It cost 250 Rupees to get in plus another 250 Rupees if you want to take pictures while inside, although assuming you don't have a massive great DSLR camera swinging over your neck, you can get away with only paying
the entrance fee and then taking a few sneaky snaps when no one's watching! In all honesty, the best thing about the Palace is the view and the outside architecture. Inside it's pretty much your standard palace with various paintings, "entertainment" rooms and courtyards. I finished the tour off with a sunset tea down at The Sunset Terrace watching the sun drop down over Lake Pichola.
The nights here were good fun. Bunkyard was a sociable hostel and it served beer - something of a rarity in Rajastan. With a jacket, some good music and a cold beer in hand, it was the sort of place I could've got stuck in and whiled away the days until one day I wake up and realise I'd spent a few weeks there! It seems to be a recurring feeling for me on the trip; the feeling of wanting to stay somewhere for longer but sadly not having the time to do so. With my last full day I hoped on one of the palace boats (300 Rupees) for a tour of Lake Pichola and the pretty Jag Mandir Palace. Sadly, it doesn't stop at "Octopussy" Palace but you do
get fairly up close. I bought my next bus ticket at a nearby agency and the next day I was off to my next destination... Pushkar. Pushkar:
In keeping with Indian scratch-headiness, before I could get on the bus I first had to tuk-tuk it to another agency just for them to write a bus number on a piece of paper - would a phone call not have done? - and then another tuk-tuk ride to the bus "station" on the outskirts of Udaipur. Still, I got there and surprisingly punctually we were off on our merry way at 13:00 on the dot. I lucked out and befriended a sound British couple with whom I shared a tuk-tuk to Pushkar from Ajmer (15km southeast of Pushkar) where the bus had dropped us off. They were an older couple on holiday and generously foot the 500 Rupees fee meaning I got a free ride. I was the first to get off as my place was closest - Zostel - my second Zostel of the trip after Goa. I stayed here for just a couple of nights giving me all day Monday and then half a
day Tuesday before moving on. It sounds short but it was enough, and I'm pleased I included Pushkar in my trip after having originally planned to go direct to Jaipur from Udaipur.
Pushkar is a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs full of temples and ghats leading down to the sacred Pushkar Lake. A dip in the lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases. That apart, it's also a very hippy-friendly place and it shows in the baggy-trouser wearing, dread-locked, pot-smoking, shampoo-adverse, yoga-practising, Dalai Lama-wannabe tourists thronging its narrow, bazaar-filled streets. I spent my time here visiting the temples and ghats making sure I dipped my toes in the lake before passing by the Brahma Temple with its distinctive red spire. I also climbed the 200 odd stairs up to the Savitri Mata Temple which sits atop Ratnagiri Hill which affords great views of Pushkar and the lake below.
It was something of a flying visit to Pushkar. I had just enough time on Tuesday morning for one final stroll by the lake and a bite to eat before tuk-tuking it to the bus station for my 4pm ride to Jaipur. Jaipur:
Lord knows why I kept insisting on taking the bus India! The 3 I'd taken earlier in the trip (Hampi - Goa, Goa - Mumbai & Udaipur - Pushkar) hadn't exactly gone great and this one was very much in keeping with the rest. This time the bus hung around in Pushkar for about 45 minutes and we then proceeded to stop about 50,000 times along the way including once to get petrol and another time in front of a small shrine so that the driver could get out and pray for 20 minutes. Then came an unexpected bus change somewhere about an hour from Jaipur which was just chaos when people tried to get off the bus while others were trying to get on! Why oh why did I not take the train?! I finally got to Jaipur bus station around 9pm and made my way to the excellent Moustache Hostel, staying 4 nights leaving on Saturday morning.
That gave me 3 full days in Jaipur, spending the first visiting the Old Town and the Hawa Mahal Palace (Palace of Winds) then moving on to the inexplicably deserted Sargasuli
Tower which surely has the best views of Jaipur City before finishing up inside the Town Library. Jaipur certainly seemed a little more stereotypically "Indian" to me - more chaotic and more polluted than the places I'd been to. That's not say I didn't enjoy it though and the hostel was a great place to meet people and, as in Udaipur, had yet another impressive roof-top terrace. I teamed up with some hostel folk and went to Jaipur's biggest (and best) attraction - the Amer Fort. For 500 Rupees (split between 5 people) a taxi drove us there, waited and then took us back stopping briefly at Jal Mahal (Water Palace) for a few snaps. Amer Fort is a very impressive structure and requires at least a couple of hours to do it any kind of justice. The highlight for me was the beautifully ornate and colourful Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace). The construction of this hall is done in such a way that even if a single ray of light enters the Mahal then this light would be replicated in the mirrors and the entire hall would light up. From the fort we took the "tunnel" (only part of it
is covered) up to Jaigarh Fort, Amer Fort's next door neighbour. Although impressive - it houses the World's largest wheeled cannon - it isn't quite as grand as the Amer Fort but considering its close proximity it's still well worth a gander!
That night the hostel rounded some people up for a night on the town. We went to Blackout Rooftop Bar on top of the Golden Oak Hotel. It was a fancy-pancy kinda place with over-priced beers and just a bit of a dickhead vibe - just the pretentious, up-its-own-arse kind of place I usually try to avoid like the plague! To make things worse, just as the beers and cocktails were starting to take effect and we were all getting warmed up, off went the music and the place closed! And it wasn't even midnight yet! It was a slightly disappointing night although not AS bad as the following night when we tried again to go out only to end up in an entirely empty club!
On Friday, my last day in the city, I spent a ridiculous amount of time buying my train ticket for Agra - seriously India, buying a
train ticket should not take 1 hour! I suspect that my problem is that I'm just not rude enough. So many times here I've waited patiently and politely in line only to be nudged out of the way by a local! Still, I got my ticket leaving early morning from Jaipur Junction, destination... Agra. Agra:
Where did THAT
train journey come from?!! I found my seat and the staff were actually polite and helpful and during the trip they first served up some tea and biscuits followed later by an omelette with some fresh bread and more tea. I later found out that I'd booked a ticket on a special express train that's supposedly the best train you can take in India. It was easy to see why!. Arriving at Agra Fort I bargained with a tuk-tuk (100 Rupees) to take me to my third (and final) Zostel of India over on East Gate Road, 10 minutes walking distance from the East Gate of the famous Taj Mahal.
The Taj is more than just another place of interest that needs ticking off the sightseeing list - it's a World Wonder, admired
by people from all around the globe, and for me personally it represented the final step of a casual objective I've maintained for the last 8 years - the see all of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Arriving to my hostel I felt an excitement that I hadn't felt at any other point on my trip. I was on the verge of seeing and doing something special and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to achieve it. My first glimpse of the Taj was actually from Agra Fort, which I visited the day I arrived with a few from the hostel. The fort is an attractive building and a worthwhile visit, its most interesting points being the views of the Taj Mahal and the octagonal tower with the marble balcony where Shah Jahan, the man responsible for the Taj Mahal, is rumoured to have died. Shah Jahan was put under house arrest there by his own son supposedly to prevent him from bankrupting the country by building the black marble copy of the Taj Mahal for himself on the other side of the River Yamuna. Seems a little bit harsh!
view of the palace would have to wait till the next day. With the same folk I'd visited the Fort with, I was up at the crack of dawn in the hope of catching the sunrise. First stop was the hilariously unorganised and rather rude ticket office on East Gate Road and then a short stroll later we were queuing at the gate. We bagged ourselves a guide while waiting settling on a price of around 500 Rupees (about 1 Euro each!). Getting in, however, wasn't as straight forward as we might've thought. The security is strict
! I only had my camera and wallet on me and that was fine, but others in the group couldn't get through with a book - A BOOK! - nor a souvenir chess set someone had picked up at one of the shops just outside the gate. I mean seriously - A BOOK! These things had to be stored in one of the nearby shops and we just kept our fingers crossed that they'd still be there when we got back!
Anyway, after that slightly ridiculous delay we were inside with our guide and my excitement levels were rising with every
step. We walked through the Great Gate and there in front of me was, finally..... a massive cloud of mist obscuring the view of the Taj Mahal completely! I was standing 200 metres from it and I couldn't see it! Instead, as morning went on, the mist lifted and little by little, piece by piece, almost as if it was deliberately teasing the eager onlookers the Taj Mahal slowly revealed itself in all its glory and splendour. We spent hours there, finally leaving at around 2pm, strolling happily back up East Gate Road to the hostel. The guide had done a pretty good job and the things we left at the shop were still there! In that moment I felt a mixture of fulfilment and sadness. I'd reached a goal that took me 8 years and an awful lot of travelling to reach - what the hell was I supposed to do now?!
I spent the rest of that day chilling at the hostel which put on a cool camp fire and beers later in the evening. The friendly staff had helped me buy my next train journey, and the next day I was off to Agra
Cantonment Station (100 Rupees tuk-tuk) for my final destination in India... New Delhi. New Delhi:
The train was delayed due to the fog and by the time I arrived to Delhi it had gone dark. I was, however, saved from what would've been a couple of tedious hours at the station by the hostel staff who had checked online and seen that the train was due into Agra late. Arriving to New Delhi late was exactly what I didn't want but nonetheless I still tried to follow my hotel directions and arrive on foot. Big mistake! What should've been a fairly simple 15 minute walk turned into an hour-long mission. I went waaaay past where I was staying and in the end I only found the place thanks to a friendly local who practically walked my the whole way, expecting nothing in return, albeit taking me through some seriously dodgy-looking back alleys! I was staying at the Hotel Krishna Deluxe for 5 nights paying 100€ for a private en-suite. It was a little "treat" I gave myself in order to get some good rest in before heading off to Nepal for some trekking. Delhi
has more than a few very decent hostels but I just needed a few days of alone time! After a while things inevitably start taking their toll - the climbing over other people's shit to get to bed, getting woken up at 6am because some moron couldn't be bothered to pack the night before, telling people where I was from or what I did for a living! I had 4 full days in Delhi which I'd heard was probably 2 more than needed but my goal was to relax, enjoy my space a little and recharge those batteries!
That said I still got out there and explored the city a fair bit; the first day swinging by India Gate, the President's Palace and the Sikh Temple of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib which was one of the highlights. On Wednesday I negotiated a price of 500 Rupees with a tuk-tuk driver to take me around a few of the other sights the city has to offer and, despite not delivering on exactly what I asked (Sahajanand Darshan would have to wait), I still had a pretty productive day first passing by King Humayun's Tomb which is an impressive complex
and quite clearly a precedent for the Taj Mahal. I later moved on to Qutub Minar which houses a grand 73-metre minaret as well as a mosque with stunning stone carvings. From there it was on to the very tranquil and well-maintained Lodi Garden's before finishing up at the Birla Temple of Laxminarayan, the first large Hindu temple in Delhi and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. Having my own personal tuk-tuk really took the stress out of the day and I doubt I would've seen so much without one. And, as always, no jaunt with a tuk-tuk driver would be complete without the final visit to a souvenir shop where I bought absolutely nothing while trying not to piss anybody off! I had optimistically hoped to swing by the Red Fort too but after visiting forts in Goa, Jaipur and Agra it's fair to say I was a bit forted out!
So the following day I was off sans tuk-tuk to the Sahajanand Darshan complex on the east of town across the Yamuna River. To this day I can't work out if I was impressed by this place or not! One thing I am sure of is that's
definitely worth a visit, and not just a flying visit either. To do the place any kind of justice you need a least a good few hours. I took New Delhi's excellent fast, clean & efficient metro across to Akshardham Station from Rajiv Chowk Station right by Connaught Place and from there it was a short and easy walk to the temple complex - ignore the tuk-tuks on leaving the metro, they're not necessary!
So, I'll be honest... walking to the entrance I saw the signs saying cameras weren't allowed but given that I only carry a small point-and-click camera I really didn't think they'd care and so I just kept it hidden in my pocket. As I approached the entrance however, and a line of people formed behind me trapping me in, I realised that this place has the sort of security a US airport would be proud of! I saw the metal detectors and officers searching people and I panicked a little and could only think of hiding my little camera inside my sock in the hope it wouldn't be found. The metal detector alarm went off I walked through and I was frisked praying
they guy wouldn't go lower than my waist. He did! And when he found my camera I was very unceremoniously dragged aside by a security guard who then threatened, for some ridiculous power-tripping reason, to throw my camera in the trash. Granted, I'd done a silly thing but seriously, it that level of twatiness really necessary?! I got away it only by playing the dumb tourist card. I think I said something about not having my contacts in and therefore not having seen the signs! I was forced back out to leave my camera at the items counter before returning to queue all over again. On the second go the detectors didn't go off but that still didn't stop them frisking me again to make sure. One step more and it would've been a full anal cavity search!
The Sahajanand Darshan Hindu complex is certainly an interesting place with its centrepiece being the spectacular Akshardham Mandir built from intricately carved sandstone and marble and consisting of 234 carved pillars, 9 ornate domes, 20 quadrangled spires and 20,000 statues of India's Hinduisms spiritual personalities. However, since it was made only very recently (it opened in November 2005), it
does lack that certain old temple awe factor. After admiring the handiwork I moved on, and it was at this point that the visit took a slightly strange turn. I bought a ticket for the Cultural Boat Ride and Hall of Values Exhibition. The former was a 12-minute boat ride in the style of a log flume ride at a theme park only without the fun drops and with a lot more Indian history! The latter was a walk through various exhibits charting the childhood and life of Ghanshyam Pande, to be known later as Swaminarayan, the person who the entire complex was built in honour of. The exhibits were well made and informative but again, I couldn't help feeling like I was in some sort of spiritual Disneyland! After the exhibition had finished I timed it just right to watch the mightily impressive Multimedia Water Show complete with multi-colour lasers, video projections, underwater flames, water jets, surround sound and live actors! The show was all in Hindi so I had no idea what was going on but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
I headed back to the metro and back to my hotel, stopping briefly at "Lord of the Drinks" on Connaught Place for a swifty and reflecting not only on my stay in Delhi but my time in India as a whole. What a great country. One thing's for sure - whether you're amazed, annoyed, relaxed or stressed out, India will never leave you feeling indifferent! The next day I was on a 12:55 Air India flight. My destination... Kathmandu.
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